Women’s NCAA Tournament Bracket Watch: Don’t count out Duke – The Athletic

By Mark Schindler7h agoSupported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s & women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

The most exciting and chaotic time of the year is upon us. Whether you’re sweating out a possible No. 8 seed, comfortably holding court as a hosting team, or praying your program finds its way out of the bubble, you can now keep up at The Athletic consistently with our new March Madness launch.

The Athletic has continued to grow its women’s basketball coverage by expanding staff, launching a podcast and diving into the most important topics in the sport. For the first time, we’ll be offering an essential staple of NCAA Tournament content with weekly Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch articles.

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We’ll explain the top picks, who’s in and who’s out, and offer readers the most substantive bracket analysis in women’s college basketball. After today, look for my bracket every Tuesday, leading up to Selection Sunday. On Fridays, check back in to go deep into our Bubble Watch field, where I’ll explain the teams with the most work to do heading into March.

You’ll also find regular updates from our men’s college basketball team on their Bubble Watch and Bracket Watch.

This women’s college basketball season has been predicated on parity and competitiveness at the highest level. On any given night, a top-five team is in danger of getting knocked off by a middle-of-the-conference program. Multiple teams have tried to assert themselves to that top spot reigning over the division, and multiple have failed after trying to grab the proverbial mic from undefeated South Carolina.

“4, 3, 2, 1” is an absolute masterpiece of a cut. Erick Sermon does his thing with a simple, but hard-hitting beat. Some of the best lyricists and flows hit the track for a blend that has you bobbing her head and progressively going “Ohhhh!” a little more enthusiastically with each bar. And then, LL Cool J comes on the mic, and destroys Canibus, the then up-and-coming MC who has the third verse on the track.

The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers / You hold the rusty swords I swing the Excalibur…
But that’s like picking up a ball, playing with Mike / Swingin’ at Ken Griffey or challenging Roy to a fight.
Snapping, you amateur MCs / Don’t you know I’m like the Dream Team touring overseas?

I’m not saying the college basketball season is akin to a misunderstanding over Canibus paying homage to LL Cool J’s bicep tat, but watching these ranked teams continually cut down one another leaves an eerily similar feeling. Finding your team ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll has proven a curse each week, a premonition of impending demolition. Try as they may, not a single team has been able to dodge the LL-level shoulder shrug that comes each weekend as South Carolina keeps separating itself as the best team in basketball.

With just over a month until the start of March Madness, teams are working to round out their resumes, bolster weaknesses and present the best case possible heading towards Selection Sunday. Which teams stand out most across the board?

First Four Columbia 16 High Point 16 Sacred Heart Palo Alto 16 Holy Cross 16 Little Rock Corvallis 12 Ole Miss 12 Maryland Spokane 11 Villanova 11 Michigan Albany 1 Columbia 1 South Carolina 16 High Point Sacred Heart Columbia 8 Michigan State 9 North Carolina Blacksburg 4 Virginia Tech 13 South Dakota State Blacksburg 5 Baylor 12 Florida Gulf Coast Los Angeles 3 USC 14 Chattanooga Los Angeles 6 Syracuse 11 Middle Tennessee Manhattan 2 Kansas State 15 Stony Brook Manhattan 7 Florida State 10 Marquette Portland 2 Palo Alto 1 Stanford 16 Holy Cross Little Rock Palo Alto 8 Texas A&M 9 Miami Bloomington 4 Indiana 13 Jackson State Bloomington 5 Louisville 12 Fairfield Baton Rouge 3 LSU 14 Cleveland State Baton Rouge 6 Duke 11 Richmond Austin 2 Texas 15 Northern Arizona Austin 7 Mississippi State 10 Iowa State Albany 2 Los Angeles 1 UCLA 16 Hawaii Los Angeles 8 Alabama 9 Penn State Storrs 4 UConn 13 North Texas Storrs 5 Utah 12 Drake Spokane 3 Gonzaga 14 Marshall Spokane 6 Princeton 11 Villanova Michigan Columbus 2 Ohio State 15 Albany Columbus 7 Oklahoma 10 Washington State Portland 1 Raleigh 1 North Carolina State 16 Southeastern Louisiana Raleigh 8 Nebraska 9 Tennessee Corvallis 4 Oregon State 13 Ball State Corvallis 5 Notre Dame 12 Ole Miss Maryland Boulder 3 Colorado 14 Grand Canyon Boulder 6 Creighton 11 UNLV Iowa City 2 Iowa 15 Norfolk State Iowa City 7 West Virginia 10 Saint Joseph’s

Last four in Last four out Next four out Last four byes
Ole Miss Kansas Florida Iowa State
Villanova Vanderbilt Auburn Marquette
Michigan Green Bay Columbia Washington State
Maryland George Mason Arkansas St. Joseph’s

Multi-bid conferences

League Bids
ACC 8
Big Ten 8
Pac-12 7
Big 12 6
SEC 6
Big East 4
A-10 2

The fourth No. 1 seed goes to …

UCLA locks up the fourth No. 1 seed in my bracket — one of the more difficult decisions to make this week. The Bruins have not been the same team of late as they were the first few months of the season, centered around star center Lauren Betts’ undisclosed medical issue that sidelined her four games. However, it’s key to keep the entirety of UCLA’s body of work at the forefront.

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Defeating Ohio State in Columbus is one of the best wins any team has on its resume. The Bruins have lost one game with Betts healthy and starting, and though that shouldn’t be used as the whole argument, it’s an important point when factoring in how they dominated one of the stronger nonconference schedules in the country, punctuated by top-end matchups. While recent play matters, it’s too easy to let it shroud what happened in the first half of the season. Given that UCLA has the head-to-head over Ohio State (my first No. 2 seed), that gives the Bruins the edge for now.

Winning in Corvallis this Friday against red-hot Oregon State would go a long way in shoring up the Bruins’ case to headline a region. They are undefeated at home, the site where they took down both Utah and Colorado during a single weekend, propelling them upward in the rankings and seeding.

It’ll be important to watch how UCLA’s shooting from 3 balances out; the Bruins shot 35.9 percent from deep across the first 10 games of the season. They shot 28.3 percent in the nine games after, through the end of January.

We’ve seen a recent uptick and hot shooting since, but how that trends will be crucial for the Bruins. Star guards Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne both started the season confident and shooting well on volume from beyond the arc, but they have struggled to maintain form in Pac-12 play. It’s heavily altered how defenses put pressure on the paint and on Betts, in particular. How UCLA pivots, makes the most out of this final regular-season stretch and reasserts itself as its whole again is one of the most interesting late-season storylines.

Don’t sleep on the potential of a UCLA-Stanford rematch in the Pac-12 tournament. A win for either team would all but assure a No. 1 seed, even if UCLA has another bump to close the year.

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Kansas State controls its destiny

Kansas State is in an eerily similar situation to UCLA, losing star post Ayoka Lee to an ankle injury that required surgery in mid-January. Yet, the Wildcats have scrapped like crazy to stay afloat and thrive in difficult scenarios as they’ve had to reinvent themselves without their All-American. There are no silver linings in the moment of an injury, but playing without Lee for the entirety of last season had the Wildcats better prepared to manage the middle of Big 12 play without her.

Point guard Serena Sundell has upped her play and aggression as a scorer, averaging 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game with a 60.6 percent true-shooting mark, which accounts for 3-point shooting and free throws generated. Despite taking on a larger brunt of the scoring, she’s maintained her high efficiency. Gisela Sanchez and Eliza Maupin have both come through with huge performances at center, bringing a different package to the offense and defense.

That play across the board has kept the Cats in contention with the final No. 2 seed at present. Both of their Quad 1 losses have come on the road (Texas and Oklahoma) and were single-digit defeats. They have arguably the best resume win in the Big 12, beating Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena early in nonconference play.

Lee returned Wednesday night to take on Iowa State in Ames, where the Cyclones escaped with a home-court win in a double-overtime thriller, 96-93. The Wildcats understandably looked a little disjointed picking back up a different style of play. Can they take what they found with Lee sidelined and mesh the two styles of play together for a more versatile attack?

Kansas State is largely in control of its destiny as conference play rounds out, facing Iowa State and West Virginia in Manhattan, but a key rivalry game in Lawrence against a Kansas team that’s found a rhythm since they played on Jan. 20. Snagging a No. 1 seed is definitely on the table for K State, but finding its footing to dominate the middle of the conference with Lee back in the fold will be important, as will making some noise in the conference tournament.

When was the last time you thought about Gonzaga?

If your answer is right now while you’re reading this, have I got some news for you! This team is awesome, and it just keeps dominating. You can point out the Bulldogs play in a less competitive conference, and I hear that. Last season, the Zags went 17-1 in the West Coast Conference and went out tough in the NCAA Tournament’s first round. Alas, this is a very different Gonzaga team, and it should be treated as such.

The Bulldogs have approached conference play with vicious resolve, commanding a 46.2 NET rating (point differential per 100 possessions) through 11 games. Their smallest margin of victory is 18 points. They are doing what an elite team is supposed to do: Shred opponents who aren’t on the same level.

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It is so hard to be the Zags or any team that’s at the top of a mid- or low-major conference. They are not judged the same as high-major teams, and while the game is the game, there is just a different kind of pressure. These teams are judged by their lows more often than their highs, considering that the former typically happen with conference slip-ups.

I firmly believe in Gonzaga as a host team and a No. 3 seed because of how it’s approached this pressure. The Bulldogs took on the 10th strongest nonconference schedule in the country, punctuated by a dominating 18-point win over Stanford. It’s worth noting that Cameron Brink left the game part of the way through, but Gonzaga controlled the contest from start to finish.

Beating Louisville during their Thanksgiving tournament would’ve been a huge boost as well, but that game was on a neutral court and the Bulldogs’ third game in three days — factors that should be considered. It doesn’t diminish the win for the Cardinals, but that’s about as productive a loss as you can have.

They tested themselves more than most teams in power conferences, putting seeding in their hands as much as possible and betting on that. They deserve to be rewarded for a strong resume and steady dominance, earning their way to what would be their highest seed in team history (they’ve been a No. 5 seed twice, 2019 and 2021). The Zags have second-weekend aspirations in tandem with the talent, cohesion and experience to get there.

What has Oregon State on the rise?

The Beavers took on one of the most challenging road trips in the country this season for their first foray in the New Year, popping into Los Angeles to take on USC and UCLA. We learned a lot about the Beavs in that trip as they lost to USC in a one-possession game, and they hung in with the Bruins in an 11-point loss. Oregon State showed it belongs among the nation’s top teams, but I was interested to see how it would respond.

A little over a month later, Oregon State has gone 8-1 since, beating Colorado and Utah each twice. The Beavers’ only loss came down the stretch in a close game at Stanford.

According to Her Hoop Stats, 68.1 percent of all of Oregon State’s baskets are assisted — the seventh-highest mark in the country. The ball zings as the Beavers share the rock, consistently creating efficient and effective offense through their movement. Raegan Beers struggled in that matchup with USC, the first game in which she saw many concerted double teams. She was a bit hesitant making passing reads out, and that was huge for the Trojans to slow down Oregon State and force it to play more one-on-one.

Since then, Beers has worked herself back to an all-conference rhythm, averaging 17.4 points per game while shooting 64 percent from the field. For reference, only six players in the country are shooting 64 percent or better from the field while scoring 15 or more points per game.

Beers has gotten more comfortable making those reads as she’s seen more extensive defensive help. With the Los Angeles programs making their way to Oregon this weekend, it’s a huge opportunity for the Beavers to further solidify their case as a tournament host team and prove they should be reckoned with come mid-March.

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The Beavers have a marquee win over Colorado in Boulder, which propelled them nationally.  Adding another win like that to supplement their nonconference resume would push them into another tier.  That’s the only thing preventing them from cresting to a No. 3 seed this week. Stanford travels to Corvallis on Feb. 29 as well — another opportunity for the Beavs.

They’re 16-0 at home, and picking up any of these potential Quad 1 wins as the Cali schools come through will separate Oregon State.

Duke deserves your attention

The ACC is simultaneously a joy and a nightmare: a joy to watch, a nightmare to predict and analyze. Every team has an opponent that hits it like Kryptonite yet can deliver that same punch to two or three other programs. The standings may as well be on a half-hour refresh.

Duke (16-7, 8-4 ACC) currently occupies a No. 6 seed line with the potential for some upward motion, yet there’s been minimal noise about the Blue Devils. Let’s ratchet that noise up after Taina Mair’s dagger 3 from the corner cemented Duke’s win in the season’s first Tobacco Road matchup.

Duke is very young, five of its top eight rotation players are underclassmen, and the majority of them are guards and ballhandlers. There’s been a decent amount of inconsistency game to game, a trademark of youth, but Durham has gone under the radar despite top-notch potential.

Coach Kara Lawson put together a rigorous nonconference schedule, finishing with the seventh hardest strength of schedule in Division I. I’d argue this schedule is even better than it gets credit for, as the Blue Devils’ loss to Davidson has been harshly impacted on paper. Davidson was 12-2, looking like a prime challenge to Richmond to win the Atlantic 10, before losing two rotation players to season-ending knee injuries during its first game against George Mason. The Wildcats just lost another in Charlise Dunn due to an ACL injury after she had majorly stepped up in the wake of the two prior injuries. The loss is now categorized as a Quad 3 game, which drags them down a tad, but in reality, I would look at them as a Quad 2 opponent. Davidson had a top-40 NET rating before injuries, so this isn’t a case of a team just falling apart during conference play.

Duke clawed and scrapped against top teams outside the ACC, taking Stanford into overtime at Maples Pavilion. The game against South Carolina was more competitive than the final score suggested. Beating up on Virginia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium was a pivotal step in showing that Duke can not just hang in these games, but they can win against opponents expected to make Sweet 16 runs.

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Duke is gritty defensively. The Blue Devils will dictate the pace, and they continue to find ways offensively to win as they gain experience. We’re going to find out a lot about Duke over the next four games — all against ranked opponents, starting with a rematch against Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils have the talent and have started finding consistency. If they can maintain that against some of the top teams in the ACC and the country at large, they have a shot at improving their seeding even more.

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*Trade.

The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photo of Oluchi Okananwa: Lance King / Getty Images)

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